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How John McEwan turned employee fear into energy to help provide better service to Deloitte clients Featured

8:00pm EDT September 25, 2010

John McEwan did not have months, weeks or even days to prepare for the role of leading Deloitte LLP in Columbus. He only had hours as he learned he would be taking the job the same day his predecessor was leaving it.

“We had virtually no transition plan,” says McEwan, managing partner of the accounting firm’s Central Ohio practice. “Very shortly after that, the economy began its freefall. The timing was not ideal from a perspective of me coming in and setting some strategy and my own style and plan of how we were going to do things. It was immediately overcome by the changes in the economy and how we were going to react and deal with that.”

So you could forgive McEwan for feeling a little rattled when he first took over. But he knew there was no time for pity. Ready or not, he had 230 employees expecting him to hit the ground running as their leader.

They wanted to know his plan for the company and the type of leader he was going to be. These concerns weren’t about John McEwan the person as much as they were about John McEwan the leader.

“People aren’t for you or against you,” McEwan says. “They are thinking about their self interests. What is this going to mean for me? How do I deal with what that means to me? You need to put together a message that resonates with them, that will move them forward.”

McEwan needed to rally employees together and take their mind off any fear or uncertainty they themselves might be feeling. Here’s how he did it.

Step out of your shoes

If the challenges that McEwan was facing weren’t enough, it quickly got tougher when the firm also had to eliminate positions soon after he took over.

“That was probably the hardest time,” McEwan says. “We had come to the conclusion that we needed to let a few people go. ‘Had we done everything that we could? Had we stretched it as far as we could? Are we doing the right thing for the other associates that are going to remain?’”

These were all questions McEwan and his leadership team had to deal with and answer for themselves on their own time. The more pressing concern for the organization was getting those employees who remained to get past the fear that they might be the next ones to be shown the door.

“I honestly tried to put myself in the position of, ‘If I was sitting out there, what would I be feeling?’” McEwan says. “‘What does this mean to me? Am I next? Are we done? Where do we go from here?’ So while it was a difficult message, when I put myself in their shoes, I thought, ‘What is it that I wanted to know about what is going to happen today, tomorrow and the next day?’”

McEwan realized that he couldn’t make any promises about anyone’s future. But he could share his feelings about the organization’s future and explain that, as of today, he very much needed them to be part of it.

“It’s being able to relate that message of, ‘Here’s the situation we’re in. Here’s what it means to you. Here’s how you fit into our plans and strategies,’” McEwan says. “That’s what people want to know. ‘What does it mean for me?’”

McEwan had to get out and talk to his people. He had to show them that their ideas were essential to shaping the firm’s future.

“The best leaders understand and they are curious and they listen to where the minds and hearts of their people are at,” McEwan says. “You can’t underestimate how much time and effort that takes. You can’t properly lead people from one situation to another unless you know where they are at. That’s going to determine the course of action that you need to take.”

McEwan tried to make sure he would remember what he was hearing so he could formulate that course of action by putting ideas into buckets.

“I try to put it into central themes,” McEwan says. “I like to keep things to three. Beyond that, it gets complicated. Keep it simple. Try to develop some themes around what you’re hearing. That’s very effective and an easy way to get your mind around it and your thoughts organized.”

Connect yourself and others

McEwan wanted to get everyone energized to help Deloitte’s clients, who were going through the same tough economy that employees were. He hoped that by focusing on the intense effort that Deloitte needed to make to calm client fears, he could connect them to the greater cause and at least reduce some of the more personal fears that employees felt.

“I tried to really get our people to turn this into a positive and really understand that while, yeah, this may be a difficult time for everyone, this is really the time when our clients need us,” McEwan says. “[They needed] to take their hearts and minds off of looking inward and really turn it into what our core values are of client service and being a trusted adviser.

“You have to come back to what are we here to do? In our case, it’s really all about our clients and our people. … If you can bring it to that level and put it in the context of core values and reason for being and put it in that perspective, I think that takes some of the tension and conflict out of the conversation. You can get people to open up.”

One of the best ways to get others to open up is for you to do the same. When McEwan met with employees, he tried to show his excitement and passion for Deloitte and the things he and his employees could accomplish together.

“If you’re transparent and you stay true and you really believe as a leader in what you’re doing, you don’t have to be careful as much because that’s what you believe and that’s the way you are,” McEwan says. “You have to be true to yourself. People will respect you for that. Otherwise, you appear to be disconnected.”

When you appear disconnected, it’s easy for your people to assume you don’t care. That’s not going to help you sell your plan and it may even hurt you as word travels across the organization.

“There’s nothing worse than going through a meeting and walking out of the room and they’re saying, ‘What’s he thinking? He’s completely out of touch,’” McEwan says. “Everything you say and do is passed on through three or four conversations. So it’s very important to think before you open your mouth.”

Deal with resistance

McEwan was pleased with the progress that the firm was making in calming fears and getting people to buy in to the effort to delight customers with great service. But very few leaders are able to sell a plan to their employees without at least some resistance.

The key to keeping resistance from completely derailing your plan is to deal with it head on. It’s not that you’re looking to stamp it out and censor employees who don’t agree with you. Rather, you want to talk about their issues and do what you can to get everyone back on the same page.

“You have to call it out,” McEwan says. “One of the worst things you can do is you don’t address it right there and then. You need to be able to call it out, deal with it and address it.”

You also need to make it safe for your people to express concerns when they have them.

“You can’t cut their knees out from under them if they do disagree,” McEwan says. “I’ve seen this in instances where the leader gets very defensive immediately and shoots them down. You have to embrace it. You have to listen. You have to maybe even make it a separate meeting or separate interaction to go back to them and take it offline versus calling them out in front of everybody. You need to address it.”

If you’re in a group setting and you feel like there are other people in the room who will back you up, it can be quicker and simpler to just have a conversation there and hopefully come to a speedy resolution.

“Sometimes you can elicit the assistance of others in the group so it’s not just you as the leader,” McEwan says.

The important thing is that you show yourself to be open to hearing the honest feedback that you’ve said you want to hear.

“The rest of the team has to see you being true to the message,” McEwan says. “Every once in a while, it’s good to reinforce, ‘We really do mean this. This really is the type of behavior and action we want.’”

If it seems like a longer discussion is warranted or if the discussion is likely to become more heated, it’s probably best to keep it out of the meeting.

“We don’t want to spend the next 15 minutes of the management meeting dealing with this one issue when everyone else then becomes disengaged,” McEwan says. “Some people will understand there are going to be some areas of conflict or disagreement that are going to be taken offline.”

The thing to remember is just because you’re not in an open meeting, that doesn’t mean other people won’t hear about your reaction. So be aware of how you handle it.

“Will that person go back out to the other partners and say, ‘Holy cow, that was a bad idea,’” McEwan says. “He just gave me a piece of his mind and he’s pretty much got his mind made up. That was a waste of my time.’ But if it is handled the right way, the person would say, ‘No, we sat down and went through it. He heard me out, understood my points and we concluded this.’ I’m guessing that’s what makes me more approachable as time goes by. People realize they’re not going to be taken out to the woodshed.”

You may even find in one of these disagreements that you learn something you didn’t know before.

“Sometimes they are like, ‘Hey, there is something you didn’t know,’” McEwan says. “And they didn’t want to call it out in front of the group. It’s been beneficial.”

Thanks to McEwan’s calm, yet spirited approach to his job, Deloitte has been able to ride out the storm and maintain its presence as a key accounting and consulting firm in Central Ohio, serving about 70 percent of the largest 100 public and private companies in the region.

He says his biggest challenge will continue to be staying in touch with his people and understanding what is important to them.

“Information goes so fast through the organization now,” McEwan says. “If somebody says something in a meeting or e-mails it or instant messages it, that is so quick. But you can also use that to your advantage to help pull ideas along. It’s not all about the leader. It’s about empowering the people around you and about how they can pull the organization in a direction, as well.”

How to reach: Deloitte LLP, (614) 221-1000 or www.deloitte.com